Thursday, October 11, 2007


I've been busy with TLC in the last few days, so I haven't had a lot of time to be adventuring in ECIT. Today, however, I finally started work on a project I've been interested in for about a year. Again, I'm going to have to give Jason Jones the credit for uncovering the technology: interactive timelines. Jason wrote about his plans to try to use this in a course during Spring 2007 on his blog. Unfortunately he has since restructured his blog (moved domains or something techno-geekish like that). You can, however, still read about Michael Elliott's discovery of Jason's blog post here.

In any case, the technology for these timelines has been developed by MIT's SIMILE Project. To steal a bit of their boilerplate, "Timeline is a DHTML-based AJAXy widget for visualizing time-based events. It is like Google Maps for time-based information. [...] Just like Google Maps, Timeline can be used with zero software installation, server-side or client-side. And like Google Maps, you can populate Timeline with data by pointing it to an XML file." So yeah. There's a mouthful. However, the results can be stunning.

I've got a couple of different ideas for using timelines like this. You could use them in a survey class to map texts and historical events to put things into context. You could also use them to help you read one particular novel--something with complex chronology like Slaughterhouse-Five or Jazz. Or you might use it to track Emily Dickinson's output. Of course what would make this most is the ability to build the timeline collaboratively among class members. There's not a whole lot to be gained in my opinion, if you are just asking the students to look at the work you've put into it. Instead, you want to help them start mapping (chronologically, of course) the subject of the class. And if you go the extra mile, you can use the timeline as a discussion tool. For example, if you look at the timeline for JFK's assassination and click on an event, you will notice in the lower-right corner that there is a "discuss" link. This link takes you to a wiki page devoted to that event. Linking your timeline to a wiki could allow students to discuss when an event should be situated. Look at all this technology converging! Whee!

Of course, the difficulty is getting your timeline up and running. And let me tell you that so far it has not been a picnic. The "basics" that MIT provides on the timelines are not really all that basic (or legible). The "how to" for creating timelines is not much easier and assumes that you already have a decent grasp of writing HTML. After spending several hours with the how-to page, however, I and my trusty pal Dreamweaver were able to create a VERY simple timeline.

The difficulty in making the timeline, as I'm discovering is entering the events. This has to be done in an XML format. You can see mine here. Timelines with more data understandably require much more coding (as you can see with the JFK timeline's XML). Still, the coding and the formatting is not that difficult. The problem as I see it currently is that I want my students to be able to work collaboratively and on the fly with the data. As in, Suzy Q logs in to *insert name of fantasy software here* and can quickly edit fields for "date," "event name," "event description," and maybe some extra fields like "image" or "link." She can immediately hit refresh and see her work on the timeline. At the same time, George X can be working within the same piece of *fantasy software* and be editing his own portion of the timeline or making some changes/corrections to what Suzy has been doing.

I could ask the students to just cut and paste my XML formatting and substitute their own language. They could then email the code to me. And I could then upload it to my webdrive or something like that. But that's not what I want to have happen. I want this to be as automated as possible. And there's the stumbling block--for the moment. I have a hunch that Google spreadsheets or perhaps Zoho's database can help me out of the bind. Or perhaps it's Google Calendar that can come to the rescue. We'll have to see. And I'll keep you updated.

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